Cirque Peak

Located along the Icefields Parkway about 25 miles (40 km) north of Lake Louise, Cirque Peak’s 9,820-foot (2,993 m) summit rises prominently above Lake Helen and Dolomite Peak. Sitting just across the highway from popular Bow Lake, the 10-mile (16.5 km) out-and-back to the summit offers some seriously stunning views of the area’s most well-known wonders – including Crowfoot Glacier and the Wapta Icefield.

For us, this summit was eight years in the making. When we visited Banff in 2014, we’d intended to make the trip up to Cirque Peak. However, some crappy weather stymied our plan for the day, and we ended up settling for a late-day out-and-back to Lake Helen after a rainy morning hike to neighboring Bow Glacier Falls. Ever since we stopped short of the peak, I’ve wanted so badly to make it back.

Nearly a decade later, we were pumped to finally bag the summit. But this one felt especially satisfying for reasons beyond the lengthy delay it took to make it back. A couple years ago, I completely lost my confidence on a ridgeline in Montana’s Flatheads, and have found myself unexpectedly struggling with more extreme exposure ever since. Consequently, I set my goal at simply tagging Cirque’s false summit. I wasn’t sure I’d make it past the short, exposed section to the peak’s true highpoint. However, after handling it with reasonable ease, I was pumped.

The trail to Cirque Peak begins at the Lake Helen Trailhead, across from the Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint along the Icefields Parkway. For the first 2.5 miles (4.5 km) of the hike, the trail winds moderately through the forest until it reaches the top of small ridge. Part of the forest was charred in a previous fire, so it was interesting to look at the recovery from eight years prior. In 2014, the matchstick trees were surrounded by colorful wildflowers and scrubby vegetation. This summer, however, the understory was much more lush, and we even noticed a number of small pines and evergreens shooting up toward the sun. It was a slow but palpable resurgence of the woodland.

As the trail begins to open up along the ridgeline, the path traverses beautiful wildflower meadows. Take care to stay on the trail here, as the area is known for its fragile alpine vegetation. After winding through wildflowers and fir trees alongside Dolomite Peak, a small footbridge leads over Helen Creek – another change from 2014 when we had to rock hop across the small tributary. From here, a braided trail continues through the meadows, with Cirque Peak now dominating the view ahead.

After about 3.7 miles (6 km), the trail reaches Lake Helen, a beautiful little tarn nestled between Cirque Peak, Dolomite Peak and Crystal Ridge. Although the wildflowers and marmots were less abundant this time around – much to Sanchez’s disappointment – the spot was just as pretty and serene as we remembered.

The trails skirts the eastern side of the lake before climbing a small pleat of rock bands up toward Dolomite Pass. If you’re not keen on scrambling all the way to the peak, the top of the ridge makes a nice stopping point, with a bird’s-eye view of Lake Helen and Crystal Ridge. This was (roughly) our turnaround spot in 2014, which clocked in at around 8.7 miles (14 km) with 2,300’ (700 m) of vertical gain.

Atop the ridge, the trail climbs a series of rock ribs where it reaches a small lakelet. Pay attention to the cairns through this section. The trail is quite obvious for the most part, though there is one spot where you can go slightly too far to the left and end up on a game trail that traverses some super narrow ledges. People have put rocks across the trail here to prevent this, but I stupidly stepped right over them instead of bearing right and starting the scramble (there is a cairn higher up on one of the rocks, but I missed it). Luckily, our mistake was obvious upon backtracking; but we should have paid more attention to the GPS through here.

After passing over the rock bands and past the lakelet, the trail again becomes obvious – zigzagging up a steep scree slope via a series of short switchbacks. While this section is certainly steep – gaining about 1,400 feet (430 m) over 0.8 miles (1.3 km) – it’s definitely on the easier side in terms of terrain. We’ve done a number of scrambles that have had way slicker or less stable terrain than this one.

If you’re used to scrambling, you should be able to tag Cirque’s summit with ease. The scree-covered switchbacks are a steep but non-technical route. The final pitch to the true summit requires a bit of scrambling with some exposure, but nothing major if you pick your line correctly. Alternatively, you can stop at the false summit. It also requires some scrambling, but lacks some of the exposure of the peak’s true highpoint.

From Cirque Peak’s summit, the views were even better than I could have imagined. Looking north up the Icefields Parkway, we could see all the way to Peyto and Waterfowl Lakes. To the southeast, Lake Katherine and a series of smaller lakelets peppered the landscape beneath Dolomite Peak. Beyond Dolomite Peak, we could see all the way out to Mt. Hector’s towering 11,135’ (3,394 m) summit.

The most impressive views, though, were arguably to the southwest. Beyond Crystal Ridge was a sweeping panorama that included Bow Peak, Crowfoot Mountain, Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake. Along the shores of the lake, the unmistakable red roof of the Num-ti-Jah Lodge popped from the landscape. Above Bow Lake, we got an incredible look at Bow Glacier Falls, Iceberg Lake, and the Wapta Icefield – the headwaters of the Bow River. These were undoubtedly some of the most breathtaking views we’ve had in Banff, and it was hard to finally pull ourselves away to make our descent.

It may have taken us eight years to finally bag Cirque Peak, but I am so glad we did. This one totally exceeded my expectations, and the confidence boost from the summit scramble was a bit of icing on the cake. This was definitely one of my favorites in Banff, and one I’d re-hike any day without hesitation.

Total distance:  10.2 miles (16.4 km)
Elevation gain:  3,360 feet (1,025 m)
Scramble rating: Easy (Kane)

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